Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Campus Minister's Request of the 78th General Convention

You are the church. Not the building, not the clergy (alone), not the committees (by themselves). You. You are even the church on Monday. You are the church in your workplace, especially when your workplace isn't attached to a sanctuary. You are the church in your homes, as students, as strangers, as friends. Your eyes are trained to see God at work in the world around you, and the God who freed Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead *is* at work in the world around you. You are the People of God. Not alone, sure, but still YOU. The Church is the People, you are the people, and that's a good thing. To sing God's praises as God's people is the very best of all.

A mentor once said all priests have just one sermon. I rolled my eyes at the time, but I now think he is right. In my ministry as a priest, the above is the daily sermon that, for me, fills the cracks between the Sundays. (In addition to whatever else, it has at least the benefit of brevity.)

So here's my lone request of this year's General Convention of the Episcopal Church: help me preach this sermon.

Before going on, I want to make clear that I am a fan of GC. I'm obviously a fan of the Episcopal Church, and I'm a fan of the many friends from across the country who are sacrificing two weeks of their time (and summer) to do this good work of the church. If nothing else, GC reminds us that Christians are not gnostic, and that regularly sharing communion in the flesh is a good and godly thing. GC reminds us of the truth that relationships take work and tending. GC represents the commitment to hold on to one another, even across distance and difference, especially when it sometimes feels easier to let go.

My request, then, comes not from any fault found in the task of GC; my request comes from an awareness that the necessary form of any convention poses a threat to the sermon that says "you are the church," if you is meant to be inclusive of all who find a home in the Episcopal Church. 

Impossible though it may seem, not all Episcopalians know what General Convention is. Some of the ones who know, care. Within that caring core, a smaller fraction will ever attend one. So the newcomer (or long-timer) is not out of place to ask questions like these when told about the prestigious gathering in Utah this July:

What is it? 
Where? Who? 
What do they decide?
What will they decide about x, y, or z?
Who decides who decides?
Why does it matter to me?

Again, I want to reiterate that I am emphatically for the work of GC and even GC itself. What I am attempting to name and engage is a phenomenon some business folks call perspective ignorance, where folks on the inside intentionally consider what the inside looks like to folks who don't share an inside understanding. While ignorance generally carries a negative connotation, in the business world, perspective ignorance is an essential and hugely important thing, because it connects the work that is done in leadership with the people for whom the work is done. Failure to take the step of exploring perspective ignorance disconnects leadership from its reason for being. 

So there's this formal dynamic that is a part of conventions, connected to the questions someone on the outside might ask, above. When it comes to GC, this dynamic and these outsider questions can lead to an invisible / visible distinction in the church unlike any Augustine ever had in mind. As if the "real" church - apart from the not *quite* real church you and I attend every Sunday - is at long last convening.

Again: I don't know anyone attending GC who believes the small brick chapel is not the real church. The point is becoming aware of the church's unintended signals - or signals that require special knowledge to interpret. When the sum of parishioner engagement with GC can be summarized as 1) be aware that it happens, 2) pray for it, and 3) maybe one day you'll be elected to it, the signal we send is that this gathering is the stuff of "real church." 

Shifting Foundations

Sometimes signals that once worked no longer work because the foundation beneath them has shifted. I think this is the case here. The gradual dissolution of church guilds, for example, exacerbates the challenge of connecting the work of conventions to local faith communities. It used to be that the average Episcopalian had at least 50% odds of participating in a ministry - Daughters of the King, Cursillo, etc. - with regional and national leadership, of which she/he was at least marginally aware. That is, the thread that connected the national to the local - connecting GC to the particular ministry of an individual in her local faith community - was more readily visible. Anymore, such threads are harder to locate, which I take to be, in part, why this GC will consider among other things the dissolution of provinces. In our context, dissolving provinces both 1) makes sense and 2) highlights the present challenge to connect the work of GC with the work of those who will never attend it and who must never forget that, even so, you are the church.

It's understandable - and good! - that we get excited for General Convention. What is needed is a General Convention just as excited for, empowering of, and enthusiastically pointing back to, the work of the local church, in word and deed. The word part, I think, happens. We all say it and mean it. The deed part is harder because any gathering of leaders invariably encounters the temptation to justify itself - you know, to make the two week celebration worth the cost. But just to the extent that leadership falls prey to this temptation, the divide grows further between leadership and the people leadership serves.

In what follows, then, one example of the problem, one encouragement, and one positive example:

An Opportunity Missed (A Simple Example)

Among other things, this General Convention will propose a reimagining of the church's calendar. There are several things to commend in the proposal of the calendar subcommittee specific to the present topic: in affirming as central the prayer book's calendar of feasts, the proposal shows a useful restraint, emphasizing only saints with direct New Testament mentions and/or connections, allowing an ambiguity "appropriate to the range of theologies around sainthood and holiness within the Episcopal Church." Even better, 
“A Great Cloud of Witnesses” represents the desire of General Convention for a revision of the calendar of the Church that reflects the lively experience of sainthood, especially on the level of the local community. In this way, “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” is a tool for learning about the history of the Church and identifying those who have inspired us and challenged us from the time of the New Testament down to the present moment.
So far so good: an example of leadership that remembers and honors the local church as real church and seeks to make space by a strong but minimal structure for the life of that church within a common faith.

Better still, the proposal helpfully offers seven criteria for the local commemorations for which it makes room: historicity, Christian discipleship, significance, range of inclusion, local observance, perspective, and combined remembrances. 

With so much to commend it, why list the calendar proposal as an opportunity missed? 

Here is the whole post, so far, in a point: it is not the content but the form of the proposal that undermines the content of the work, especially in its attempt to make room for the work of the Spirit in local communities of faith and so to affirm the local church as the real church. Specifically, the calendar proposal is formally flawed to the extent that the tool by which it proposes to make room for the movement and awareness of the local church is a published book, approved by GC.

What If

But what if the proposal of the calendar subcommittee had not been another published book, approved by GC - albeit with a nuanced articulation of sainthood relative to its forebears - but instead was itself an embodiment of that nuanced articulation of sainthood and an honoring of the Spirit at work in the local community? What if what the calendar subcommittee proposed was not a book at all, but an open-source website, following the same criteria, and monitored as a formal project of the church and overseen by one or more seminaries of the Episcopal Church?

(For those trying to imagine the open-source website, think a hybrid of Wikipedia and Zappos, where one clicks boxes in a sidebar to focus results. So, for example, one could simply type in a name OR one could search "women," "southern hemisphere," "19th century." Throw in searchable maps, a lá Google Earth. For kicks, we could borrow the Amazon feature, "More Like This" - but I digress...)

To make the church's calendar of optional commemorations a special project of a seminary and the newly minted digital mission field - of which I'm a huge fan - makes the proposal more than an aid to ministry; the proposal itself becomes ministry, creating a dynamic bridge between seminarians, local faith communities, and the church at large. As a campus minister, I can invite my students to contribute to the educational work of the national church. Moreover, the online project allows members of the church with no desire to serve on delegations opportunities to weave new threads for the 21st century between the life and witness of the local and national church. To restate an earlier point: there is no point or purpose to GC apart from these threads of connection.

The best part of this proposal? It's the logical extension of the old proposal's rationale, only now we're talking about an ambiguity that can be engaged.

An Encouragement

In a memoir, Pope John Paul II confessed apprehension when he was formally charged with his first local church. He was the guy now - the one put in charge of running the meetings! He quickly realized, he says, that his power to lead would come from the questions he asked, and he quickly decided on two set questions for every issue/challenge:
  • What light does the Gospel shed on this issue?
  • Who can we ask for help?
Note that the first question is a question of "why" that assumes an answer from Scripture (at my former parish, we'd ask of each project - without sarcasm - "Why in God's Name are we doing this?") and that the second question gives leadership the power to empower the people. The second question also wonderfully reminds us that all issues before the church are fundamentally a part of Christ's one ministry of reconciliation. As the desert fathers were fond of saying, "It is impossible for one Christian to say to another Christian, 'I have no need of you.'"

A Positive Example

I mention Pope John Paul II and his advice to himself upon being put in charge of a church because the questions he learned to ask are examples of leadership that do not carry the burden of self-justification and so can be free to empower others. 

The empowerment begins as soon as the questions are asked. A campus ministry colleague and good friend recently suggested that the secret to his leadership is knowing when to walk out of the room, take a phone call, visit the bathroom, and let the answers come from elsewhere. That's his understanding of leadership: making focused room for the Spirit in the life of the community of faith.

In such a shift, Why?(1) becomes a more helpful question than What? Behind What? is a task to be delegated and performed. Behind Why? is an imagination that connects to a person's own intrinsic energy(2) to be a part of something special in the Kingdom. Altar guild is the best example I can think of here. The What? is pretty straightforward: wash, iron, fold. It's laundry and dishes. To the one who has asked and dwelt in the Why?, however, washing and ironing and folding have found true and sacred meaning; indeed, altar guild members are some of the great contemporary saints of the church. 

A colleague and good friend of mine just recently wrote a worthwhile post for GC, in which she breaks up the word revitalization, as it is used by the Episcopal Resurrection group in the group's own proposal to GC, into the separate and more clearly defined words she thinks the ER folks have in mind when they use it:
  • Revitalization: a renewed focus on spiritual growth and Christian formation within the church as a whole and the life of each parish and diocese.
  • Evangelism: finding fresh ways to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to be ambassadors of reconciliation and wholeness, in the world around us.
  • Recruitment: reaching out to add new members to our congregations. 
  • Mission: getting out beyond our walls to serve our neighbors, and to join in God’s work of healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, feeding, healing, nurture and advocacy in our communities and cities.
I love these distinctions. I would suggest that a GC that did nothing more than pray, share fellowship, and ask in as many ways as possible the Pope's two questions - finding God's Why? in Scripture and mapping out resources, networks, and friends to ask for help - will have done more than enough to relieve its need to justify itself. Then, post video summaries of people telling about what they saw and heard and put those voices in conversation with folks on the ground. Yes, parameters are needed, and there are concrete goals to achieve, but then let the people back out on the field. Ask why we do what we do until the answers sing back in our souls. 

More than satisfying its reason for being, such an approach will have - best of all - led in a way that makes me intelligible to my students when, in the fall, I welcome a new class to campus and, in the midst of new friends and some fun and the feast comprised of Word and Table, persuade them again, "Hey! You! You are the church."


(1) From 'The 60 Second Leader': 

(2) John Kotter, quoted from (again) 'The 60 Second Leader':

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